Background, lineage, history, whatever you want to call it, every car has one. In this case, Craig Mengarelli's Nova will be celebrating its 42nd birthday this year. A lot can happen in that span of time, way too much for one person to remember. Luckily for Mengarelli, he can account for the last 30 years of his Nova's life, about the same length of time it's been a prize possession rather than somebody's beater wheels.
At the ripe old age of 10, it was restored by Tom Cipra (Downers Grove, Illinois). Cipra brought it to a Chevy/Vettefest in Chicago for everyone's approval. He loved and cared for it until 1988, when he sold it to the president of Mengarelli's company. It had a 406 small-block under the hood with old-timey arched headers poking through the fenderwells, a hood riddled with 144 louvers, and matching polished aluminum inner panels built by Gary Heidt. It had 14-inch Rallye wheels, a Muncie four-gear, and 4.11 cogs. Originally a three-on-the-tree car, it still harbored a bench seat. Its most memorable exterior concession included Cadillac Briarwood Firemist paint.
In 1989, the company guy sold it to Al Shill (Franklin, Wisconsin). It sat in Shill's collection until he and Mengarelli struck a deal in 1994. Friend Rocky Palmi had told Mengarelli about the piece and showed him some pictures of it. Palmi had wanted to buy it from Shill, too, but couldn't find his particulars. Finally, he got the information he needed, but push came to shove (all friendly, of course) and Mengarelli wound up with the Nova. Good score. Shill hadn't put but 100 miles on the thing the whole time he'd had it.
Mengarelli: "It just sat covered up for all those years, so it was in great condition. But it was totally old school, from a time when gasoline was just pennies a gallon." In no way was it suitable for the open road, which is where Mengarelli wanted it to be. Those steep gears and tiny 235/60 skins would have to go. The motor was beyond tired. It guzzled oil like a lush, was highly disrespectful to a gallon of pump fuel, and was ultimately too big for Mengarelli's plans. It had to go, too.
Mengarelli envisioned one primary goal while he was rebuilding the Nova-reliability. No way did he see it as a dragstrip stooge or even a street race Rat. He wanted quiet and reliable. He wanted to take it cruising, and he wanted to drive the Hot Rod Power Tour without incident or anything else that would leave him by the roadside, and if he had to fix it, he wanted to be able to go to any Bow Tie dealer for parts. In the beginning, some crazies brought race motors on the tour and wound up working on them every night. Over the years, Power Tour participants have wised up considerably and found the value and efficacy of the turnkey crate motor. Plug it in. Turn it on. Sleep peacefully. Mengarelli got with pal Bob Pioch (BP Auto, Buffalo Grove, Illinois), and the two settled on a GM Performance Parts Ram Jet 350, circa 2000.
A paragon of reliability, the fuelie Ram Jet offers 9.4:1 compression, Vortec heads, roller camshaft, roller rocker arms, unsurpassed cold and hot starting, infinitely ideal air/fuel ratios, strong throttle response, bitchin' driveability, and a definite eye-candy factor. It's meant for 92 octane, but in a pinch, a tank of regular is completely acceptable. It makes 350 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, a good street-meat combo if there ever was one.
Concurrently, these two gathered up a two-row BeCool radiator core, a 100-amp alternator, and a March serpentine accessory drive. The subplot involved an infinitely better front suspension system, more room in the engine compartment, bigger brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering. All of this is basically bolted in place via a Chris Alston NoFab clip conversion that features coilover shock absorbers, Wilwood 13-inch discs, tubular control arms, and Jet- Hot-coated headers with 1 3/4-inch primary tubes and a 3-inch collector.
The drivetrain would be no less reliable. A Centerforce 11-inch clutch assembly enabled the Richmond Gear ROD, passing torque to a Quarter Master driveshaft, thence to a rebuilt GM 12-bolt replete with Posi-traction and long-legged 3.42:1 gears. With the 0.62 high gear in the six-speed Richmond, Mengarelli's Nova would roll easily down the interstate with a Bonneville-like 2.21:1 ratio. Engine revs down, mileage up. At 80, the engine would only be turning 2,200 rpm.